Thoughts on Educational Policy, Narrative and Discourse
Greetings again, Ontario colleagues.
Thanks for all of the feedback and discussion on my last posting on The Learning Exchange. I’m writing to follow up with some further notes on the current politics of education, just completed. These take up some of the similar issues as my previous comments – how we refocus ourselves and our work in an age of reaction, backlash and retrograde geopolitics. As a dual Canadian/Australian citizen, I try not to take anything for granted – as the educational situation deteriorates in many countries often out of sheer neglect, as these countries try to sort out divisive politics around immigration, race and, indeed, militarism and nationalism. As you’d know from reading the press, we in Australia have our own crises around refugees and immigration – as well over a thousand people in ‘offshore detention’ facilities on Pacific Islands.
This said, we follow Canada’s policies and decisions regarding immigration and refugees closely – and the Canadian commitment to multiculturalism and multilingualism, with all of its own local problems and issues, remains a moral and political exemplar internationally. Don’t take this for granted for a single moment.
I wanted to post this latest piece for you because it speaks to one of the key elements of the Ontario educational context: the retention of degrees of professional autonomy of judgment and decision-making that are being eroded in the US, Canada, the UK and elsewhere as systems push towards standardized ‘scripts’ for teaching. Having spoken to Canadian teachers’ federations and with Ministry leadership over the years, I know this is one of the key balancing acts that you’ve managed to maintain, with degrees of success. All the school improvement literature – yes, including and especially the school reform work coming out of Ontario (which, no doubt, you’ve heard over and over) – has demonstrated that teacher professionalism, school-level curriculum planning and instructional leadership, and teacher autonomy to make classroom instructional decisions is crucial. The message here is simple: don’t take this for granted – and fight to maintain it.
In Australia, we’ve now got Australian National Curriculum in place, and teachers here are complaining of being buried by compliance and accountability paperwork, teaching to the test, and mandated scripts on how to teach, that are getting in the way of a focus on their core business of teaching students. For many, it’s a case of Joni Mitchell’s axiom at work: “… Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
I was speaking last week to a leading Swedish educator, who commented that they were headed back towards an Ontario-style focus on professional development, inservice work and school-level planning, coming off of a frustrating and less than successful attempt at neoliberal policy. Finland, despite their highly public successes, is shifting towards cross-curriculum ‘rich tasks’ and projects, again focusing on school-level professionalism. But elsewhere, the push is towards standardized curricula, ‘how to’ scripts and formula, mandatory centrally-dictated lesson plans, and increased control and monitoring of teachers’ work. The last thing we need is a self-driving UBER approach to schooling – but don’t dismiss the possibility out of hand. The total “teacher-proof” curriculum script was the goal of E.L. Thorndike’s first teachers’ guidebooks in the 1920s, of B.F. Skinner’s “teaching machine” in the 1960s….some things just keep coming around. What follows is a tale that is more than science fiction:
The following is the Preface to a collection of papers entitled “Educational Policy, Narrative and Discourse” by Allan Luke to be published in June 2018.
In 1981, I attended a doctoral seminar at Simon Fraser University presented by Shirley Heath, who was then completing her defining contribution to the ethnography of literacy. She explained that the decisions we make as scholars and researchers are as much products of autobiography, history, and culture as they might be of science or rationality. Over the decades since, I’ve found that this applies not just to research – but as well to our everyday choices about whether, when and how we engage with governments, educational systems and institutions. For education and schooling are by definition normative and prescriptive social enterprises – they are based not just on science and data, but rely upon our visions of what they could, should and ought to be in democratic societies. Whether as teachers, principals or researchers, administrators, managers or bureaucrats, our work is always a matter of choosing where to stand, when, with whom and towards what ends. Like all others before us, our generation had to learn that this requires something more than pedigree and degree, more than method and science, however rigorous. For cultural wisdom, scholarship and practical knowledge invariably depend upon recognition of histories, places and peoples – starting with our own stories.
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I conclude with a story of past, present and future. I want to return to Jonathan Swift’s dystopian vision that I briefly mention here in Chapter 11, “Generalising Across Borders.” In Book III of Gulliver’s Travels, intrepid traveller Lemuel Gulliver (1727) visits the Flying Island of Laputa, inhabited by a ruling class of male scientists. Their lives and world are governed by the sciences of astronomy and mathematics. The Island levitates over the Kingdom that it governs, using a magnetic lodestone for energy. At the end of his sojourn, Gulliver visits the Academy – viz. the British Royal Society – where all knowledge and truth is generated. In one room is a twenty-foot square instrument that his hosts call the “Frame”: a maze of wooden trestles connected by wires. Each trestle was covered in paper “with all the words in their language with several moods, tenses, and declensions, but without any order” (p. 72). These words were drawn from the scientists’ prior knowledge and vocabulary. When male student assistants turned its iron handles, the frame generated random sentences. These were read aloud, transcribed and archived by the students, with the aim of bestowing to “the world a complete body of all arts and sciences.” So prescient was Swift’s satire that a century later Charles Babbage (1822) felt compelled to write to the Royal Society. He explained that his new invention of a computational machine was not based on the “utopian… philosophers of Laputa” (p. 385).
What an absurd and implausible 18th century version of the future: a society run by a scientific male elite literally hovering above the governed, an aristocracy which have lost touch with everyday life, an elite who manage truth, knowledge and evidence using machines that generate numbers and words according to algorithms. Swift’s was a trenchant political critique of what he viewed as a toxic blend of British colonialism, empire and scientism. But three centuries later, like current dystopian fiction and cinema – Swift’s vision is that of technocratic governance and a narrow scientific rationalization of society and culture.
… the Canadian commitment to multiculturalism and multilingualism, with all of its own local problems and issues, remains a moral and political exemplar internationally. Don’t take this for granted for a single moment.
Across my academic lifetime, the governance of schooling and universities has been redefined. The hallmark of neoliberal governance has been a tidal wave of numbers and the opaque translation of these numbers into policy, an attempt to derive norms from facts without the inconvenience of principle or philosophy, value or ethics. There are few sectors of economy, culture and society now that are not the objects of what has come to be known as “advanced analytics” – both production and consumption, most obviously, but as well all elements of sports, leisure and, now, everyday interpersonal communications. In this, the new digital Taylorism, few quotidian actions and events have been left unmeasured, unobserved and unrecorded. The allure of course is objectivity, truth, standards and an unbiased approach to adjudication of any normative decisions. Let the numbers speak – even though numbers themselves are incapable of speech, and the interpretation of data is just that, interpretation, always hermeneutic, interactional and contextual.
In the case of both schools and universities, it is all too tempting to lapse into nostalgia for some pristine era of education and scholarship uncontaminated by political and economic interests, of schooling somehow not caught up in the machinery of unequal social, economic and cultural reproduction. If there is a lesson here, it is that no such golden era ever existed, even for those of us who were the generational beneficiaries of the postwar economic and political settlement.
But what has gone missing in this story of education is human connoisseurship in all of its forms – the everyday qualitative judgments that human beings make to live, work and survive with automaticity and alacrity, the learned use of background knowledge, experience, skill and technique that is often tacit, intuitive and embodied. Without these capacities, each and any of us would be unable to function, unable to survive and unable to proceed – as we translate observations into facts, facts into norms, norms into action as a matter of course, often short circuiting and abbreviating these moves through habit, compulsion and ritual. Yet even these least effable yet visible, eccentric yet reliable, insightful yet risky of human capacities have now been standardized, commodified and re-served to each generation as curricular skill. In current terms, it might take the form of teaching “problem solving” or “creativity” or “critical thinking” – all conceivably laudable educational goals which will be, to close the circle, weighed and measured, commodified and transmittted, verified and credentialed, indeed, bought and sold to educational consumers and clients. What also has gone missing is education for innovation and originality, experience and experimentation. In the quest to gain efficiency with austerity, the institutional space and provision for human eccentricity, for unpredictable text and discourse, for exploratory digression, for local knowledge, and for diversity of cultural thought and action is falling by the wayside.
… the decisions we make as scholars and researchers are as much products of autobiography, history, and culture as they might be of science or rationality.
Yet in the past year, educational policy and scholarship has found itself at a new crossroads. The flying island has crash landed. Its underclasses of women and minorities and workers have run amok. The detached scientists have been replaced by infotainers and warlords. And there’s a profound sense that these institutions around us, these social contracts, these pathways through life, these communities and lands and their peoples are fragile, with uncertain futures.
Having spent the last three decades critiquing and building, constructing and deconstructing the practices of neoliberal educational governance and educational practice – my view is that the cultural, social and economic contexts for policy making and critique, for everyday educational practice and experience are in the midst of a troubling, difficult and as yet uncertain ideological and political sea change. And yet, nonetheless, staring the new facts of nationalism, nativism, xenophobia and backlash in the face – it has become a species of zombie policy. It is as if neoliberal governance drones on like a Swiftian robotic machinery, generating test scores, metrics and evidence for governments and bureaucracies that have turned to other matters. The ideology of neoliberalism is besieged from left and right, and it is confronted by its Other, an idolatry of fear and untruths, built around resurgent nationalism, racism and sexism and, indeed, the allure of fascism. In this midst of this, a new generation of politicians and their corporate minders speak openly about worlds of “alternative facts” where they are “controlling the narrative.”
At the same time, teachers and students, principals and office staff, teachers’ aids and cleaners carry on in classrooms, working hard to make sense of systems which are based on the core assumptions of another epoch of economic, culture and everyday life, systems that presume worlds of gainful employment, rational civic debate and exchange, the stability of truth and knowledge in a print culture that is in eclipse, and a rule of law protecting the safety and rights of all. This is indeed a long revolution, one where we often wind up back where we started, fighting battles that we thought were won, reasserting rights that were gained and lost, thinking that we can make a difference by working with systems, ideologies and individuals that we don’t agree with, sometimes to succeed, and other times to find out otherwise or that we have become the problem, and all the while rationalizing our choices and trying to maintain a principled commitment to making a difference for those without the power and resources to do so for themselves. Perhaps the real education and wisdom is indeed in the journey – and whether as teachers or as scholars, perhaps the very best that we can do is to pass on our stories and discoveries, fraught with tensions, false starts, blind alleys and unfinished business.
31 January 2018
Allan Luke is a dual Australian/Canadian citizen, born and educated in the Chinese American community in Los Angeles and graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1972. He did his teacher training, masters and doctoral research at Simon Fraser University. He taught in elementary and secondary schools in the Fraser Valley, Burnaby and the Okanagan for a decade and is now Emeritus Professor, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. Dr. Luke’s career and work has been that of a global citizen and educator. Over the last three decades, he has made major contributions to language and literacy education, educational policy and sociology, school reform, and applied linguistics. He has authored over 250 articles and chapters, and authored and edited 15 books. Allan has been a featured speaker at the Quest Conference held in Ontario each year.